After reading and enjoying Other Lives But Mine a month or so ago, I thought I’d give literature in translation another go. This time I thought I’d venture to Germany and picked up a book called Alice by a widely read writer called Judith Hermann. I’d be lying if I said the breathtaking cover didn’t play a large part in my decision. I honestly cannot get over this cover, so damned beautiful!
So maybe all European writers have a particular interest in mortality, because funnily enough, this book is ALSO a contemplation on death. It tells of waiting for death to come, of when it occurs suddenly and unexpectedly, of the silence that comes from the questions left unanswered for decades when a person takes their own life, and primarily of what is left behind after death.
The novella is made up of five different interconnected narratives, five separate stories brought together by Alice, the central character whose life is punctuated with instances of death. Each section is named after the person who is either dead or dying in the story. It’s very postmodern in style, with very sparse almost bare prose, and with this direct style of writing, there is no explanation of how Alice may know the people we encounter in these stories. Some small inferences may be made, but much is left to the reader to fill in for themselves. This can be a little disorientating, which is how I feel you’re meant to feel when reading postmodern literature.
This book is about death, yet in a way it skirts around the actual occurrence itself, instead detailing the mundane, the specifics of everyday life, never attempting to describe emotion or anything much beyond facts. In its listing of banalities it somehow normalises death, makes death a part of everyday life, something that happens between swimming in a lake and buying ice cream from a petrol station (which I suppose it is).
An example of this is in the story, ‘Malte’. Alice arranges to meet up with someone from her late uncle Malte’s past; her uncle who killed himself before Alice was even born. The account of this meeting is meticulously detailed in its awkwardness, yet we learn nothing more about the reasons for her uncle’s suicide. However, there are minute snippets of information that can lead you to your own conclusions as to what may have happened all those years ago. And so this is how Judith Hermann speaks - without words.
There was a part of the final story that really did resonate with me, however. Alice is sorting through the things of someone who was central to her life when in a jacket pocket she comes across a crumpled bakery bag with a half-eaten almond horn in it. Such a small, trivial thing all of a sudden becomes significant. Little pockets of someone’s life left behind in their literal pockets, evidence that this person was once a living breathing human being. They once went to bakeries and ate almond horns. They are now reduced to things and memories and anecdotes. If you’ve ever lost someone close to you, this will make a lot of sense.
After reading the book, despite the entire thing being from her point of view, you don’t feel like you know Alice at all. You only have a vague outline of the person she may be, but even that is a stretch. I appreciate that this is indeed intentional and the point of the whole postmodern thing, but I found it be unsettling. It was perhaps a little too reserved and devoid of feeling for me, though I appreciate that this is in fact what many will love about it.
I’m sure many critics would say that her complete detachment and almost matter of fact way of describing events is what makes this novel such a great accomplishment, for the power of the narrative lies in what is left unsaid. An essay I could have written for a class in university would have probably said something along those lines too, but now, reading without a motive makes me question whether we can rate a writer for what they do not write, for the gaps they leave in their narrative for their readers to fill in? Can we?
If it hadn’t been for the child then none of this might have happened.
She saw me kissing her father.
She saw her father kissing me.
The fact that a child got mixed up in it all made us feel that it mattered, that there was no going back.
I’m not sure how I feel about Anne Enright. This is the second of her books that I’ve read (technically 1.5 as I couldn’t quite finish the first) and although this book is miles better than her Booker prize winning The Gathering and has given me a glimpse into the reason why she’s rated so highly, there is still something that’s holding me back a little.
The Forgotten Waltz is about adultery; about an affair between two married people, Gina and Sean. Set in Ireland, the entire story is told with hindsight and from Gina’s perspective, so we know from the beginning how this ends. But the story is still charged with us wanting to know how they got there, how this affairstarted, and how it developed.
Anne Enright writes well, there’s no doubt about that. Some of the passages in here really did take my breath away. She says things that are completely unexpected, but upon reflection, are things so true:
‘…I think how kissing is such an extravagance of nature. Like bird-song; heartfelt and lovely beyond any possible usefulness.’
How beautiful is that? Her depiction of the middle classes is also infuriatingly accurate and brought a smile to my face several times. For example, ‘The room where they slept was white…it was done in horribly similar, crucially different shades of f*cking white.’, and also ‘it was the kind of party where no one ate the chicken skin.’ I laughed at the obscurity of such a remark, but then instantly understood what she meant. These are self-consciously middle class people with middle class concerns, and in truly capturing the nuances of this world, Enright has succeeded.
Gina is very matter of fact, almost dispassionate when speaking of Sean and of the affair, an affair confined to the space of a hotel room, ‘we were only normal for the twelve foot by fourteen of a hotel room. Outside, in the open air, we would evaporate.’ She speaks as though Sean and the affair were these giant forces that were beyond her control:
But once we begun, how were we supposed to stop? This sounds like a simple question, but I still don’t know the answer to it. I mean that we had started something that could not be ended, except by happening. It could not be stopped, but only finished.
But it was hard for me to believe that someone so seemingly indifferent about something would sacrifice so much in order to attain it. She’s a walking contradiction; one minute repulsed by Sean and the next minute almost stalking him in true bunny-boiler fashion. She ultimately finds that the grass is not necessarily greener on the other side: It’s pretty much the same colour, just a different type of blade. But I couldn’t reconcile this supposedly epiphanic realisation with someone as smart and cynical as Gina – surely a previously married woman would know that the romance and excitement of a new relationship soon slips into the ordinary?! All the more so if the other adulterer in question has a child. Come on. This is Adultery and Deciding to Leave Your Spouse 101.
A common thread in Enright’s work is the way in which her stories start off in a fascinating way and then they slowly begin to falter and stagnate. The momentum is not kept up, but the beauty of the actual writing (in this book anyway) keeps you going. And Gina is a very interesting narrator. You might call her unreliable, but she goes out of her way to remind you that what she’s telling you may not be what actually occurred, and that her recollections are doused in a self-interested subjectivity. And you can’t help but be grateful for the extent she goes to to prevent the oversimplification of the motivations behind this affair.
For weeks now I’ve been trying to figure out what exactly it is about ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ that has caused all this fuss. I’m still at a complete and utter loss. I bought it on my kindle a few weeks ago (with every intention of returning it quickly for a refund, haha), read about 15% of it, couldn’t bear to carry on and then completely forgot to return the damned thing. So now this atrociously written nonsense still sits on my virtual shelf. Maybe I’ll continue reading it one day when True Boredom eats at my skull.
So when I stumbled across this review on Goodreads, I knew that I wasn’t alone. She is absolutely HILARIOUS! I actually burst out laughing on several occasions. I really urge you to read this, it will literally make your day. It’s the gifs (those moving image things) that really make it. Sooo funny.
And she has kindly gone on to review the other two books in the trilogy, saving us from having to read page after mind-numbing page of these poorly written books. Her review of Fifty Shades Darker is equally as funny.
But at the same time, we know that Fifty Shades isn’t meant to be literary fiction, and doesn’t try to be. So why am I so mad at its success? In my defense, is it wrong to expect a little bit of writing ability in a best-selling novelist?
I’m not a literary snob, far from, but can someone please tell me what it is about this particular book that has captured the world’s attention?? What makes this book different from any of the thousands of the Mills and Boon books published before (which, can I say, I DO read on occasion and are definitely better in quality)?
Understated, subtle, yet precise. That is how I’d describe David Szalay’s novel, Spring. This book will resonate with anyone who’s ever been uncertain about where they stand in a relationship.
‘This presumably being the fact that he was in love with her. Or thought he was. Or said he was. Or said he thought he was…’
Meet James - a many times failed entrepreneur, and meet Katherine - an interim receptionist working at a luxury hotel, recently separated from her husband. It’s 2006 and they meet at a wedding, swap numbers and start seeing each other. Straight forward enough. Except the relationship that ensues never quite makes it off the ground, yet we follow them through the painful repetitiveness of a new relationship, a repetition that many reviewers have said is captured in a beautifully mundane precision.
Szalay is very observant of the little nuances, the tiny details that make you smile because they are universal yet unique. He writes with a precision that elevates the ordinary into something more profound, whatever that ‘something’ may be. James spends most of his time wondering if things are ok with him and Katherine, ‘On that question he is insatiable’. He’s highly attuned to every one of Katherine’s slight shifts in mood and she appears to treat him with an indifference that is down-right embarrassing at times, blowing hot and cold in what I found to be a completely unattractive self-absorbed manner. Yet Szalay’s characters are not two dimensional; there are all these layers of thought and reasoning and experience that makes it difficult to judge them outright (as much as you want to, damn it!)
We spend as much time observing their dates as we do witnessing their attempts to actually try and arrange them and this is where Szalay’s gift for dialogue really comes through, because we have all had these awkward phone conversations in our time.
You can’t help but wonder what the point of the whole thing is.
The ending is hideously ambiguous, but the novel resonates more as a result. I never fully understood whether or not they actually did love one another. My instinct would be to say of course not, but then maybe this is what love is about in a city like London. You trudge on through and grasp at little pockets of companionship that bring you out of the vapidity, the crowded solitude. I don’t know…Maybe this also touches on that feeling a lot of people have in their late twenties/early thirties where you’re a little bit jaded and happy to settle into something rather than aimlessly try and reach for that elusive something else: ‘No more magnificence. Now he just wants to be okay.’
Gosh, this is depressing. But then, this is not chick lit, it’s real. No tint of rose. And if you’re able to look beyond the cyclical nature of their relationship (James calling, Katherine not picking up) the writing is effortless.
But this book is not without its flaws. There are characters brought into the storyline for what feels like fairly weak reasons. The frequency with which these characters enter the plot is inconsistent and the subplot of betting and race horses (James’s most recent entrepreneurial endeavour) seems completely unnecessary, adding very little to the book.
If you like stories that are character rather than plot based, you’ll really enjoy this. Whereas if you like your books to have a distinct narrative arc, I probably wouldn’t bother.
If you’ve read this, what did you think of Katherine? Was I the only one who really didn’t like her? And though I liked James did anyone else hope he would eventually develop a backbone? Do you think there was any kind of genuine love in this relationship as opposed to simply wanting to feel? Or is Katherine simply just not that into James?
If you’re the type who gets easily offended I’d stay clear of this book, you will only get mad. The cover warns you that this book has sexually explicit content, and indeed it does. Really does. There isn’t a single paragraph that deviates from the subject of sex. I, personally, don’t offend easily and can see humour in almost anything, but even I was tested at times.
Chad Kultgen is the guy who wrote this book, The Average American Male. In the ‘About the author’ section it says he studied at USC, that he lives in California and that this is his first book. We know nothing else about Chad before reading this book (unless of course you decide to Google him or something). Although after reading, I had come to the conclusion that this was a very sick and perverted man, albeit a very funny, sick and perverted man.
But then, if I’m to believe what he’s telling me, this is precisely how the average American male thinks and behaves, how their minds operate. And due to globalisation, the term ‘American’ can be extended to describe all men residing in the Western World.
The unnamed narrator has a girlfriend, Casey, whom he cannot stand; too clingy, physically not up to scratch and isn’t up for sex all the time. She manages to rope him into planning a wedding for a marriage that he doesn’t want and did not ask for and has no intention of going through with. After finding his way out of this situation he goes on to find every guy’s Dream Girl, Alyna, one with an insatiable appetite for sex and a love of video games. Naturally. And so we follow him through his sexual exploits in a world that revolves around him and the constant need to be sexually gratified.
It would be too obvious to say this book was written for guys. Although I might be trying to read too much into this narcissistic drivel and this is precisely what it is: bedtime reading for teenage boys.
*SPOILER* The closing scene describes the narrator resignedly asking Alyna to marry him: ‘Her lack of hesitation as she accepts disgusts me.’ I honestly burst out laughing when I read that. Though the message may be bleak, there is a sliver of truth here with regards to this notion of the purpose of human life and what it means. Kultgen appears to be touching on the idea that we search for meaning through these milestones borne of tradition. One cannot simply be and instead looks for meaning through the ‘next step’, whether that be further education, marriage, children; whatever. We’re all haunted by the question, ‘What more is there in life?’, and this unending search for the intangible continues.
Underneath the sex, the kink, and all the vulgarity, and maybe even despite of all this, you can’t deny that he’s darkly amusing. Ok, very darkly amusing. He may be one of the most narcissistic fictional (?) characters you’ll ever have the displeasure of meeting, but you certainly won’t forget him.
Maybe it’s just me.
How reliable is human memory? This is the central preoccupation of this unassuming yet fascinating book by Julian Barnes.
The paperback edition of the book is simply beautiful. The pages are edged in black that bleeds off from the cover like running ink; a book that has what I like to call great ‘shelf power’ and will look even better with age; a keeper. Definitely not one for the kindle.
You always expect the winner of the Booker to be rather hefty but this is a slim volume (a novella?). But with this book, every word counts. It’s concise. For lack of a better word, it is an elegant book made up of beautifully constructed prose. I read it in one sitting on a gloomy Saturday.
Tony is a retired man who’s satisfied with ordinariness; a life of holidays and mowing lawns. In the first half of the book, Tony recounts his final days at school and the memories of a particular friend, Adrian, and then of his relationship with Veronica during his time at university. The second half brings us to the present and the receipt of a bequest from Veronica’s mother, recently passed away and who met Tony only briefly on an uncomfortable weekend many decades before.
This brings Veronica back into Tony’s life and we begin to question his reliability, what he has just told of his past, undermined. He is now forced to re-evaluate the events of his past, and sets out to discover what really happened all those years ago, and to what extent he was responsible for what transpired. Our desire to know what exactly happened propels the narrative to a surprising and contemplative conclusion.
The Sense of an Ending explores the notion of memory and how it cannot be trusted, that it is indeed constructed. We believe what we want to believe and the longer we live, there are fewer people (witnesses) who are able to contradict us, so this belief then becomes the truth. This notion that we can edit our histories, and by extension our lives, is truly fascinating.
This book has honestly had me questioning my life; my version of events so to speak. I’m pretty sure that my past isn’t how I’ve remembered it, it is how I’ve wanted to remember it.
I remember the amazing writer Joan Didion once saying, ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live.’ And so we do. Do we?
Does every “I love you” deserve an “I love you too”? Does every kiss deserve a kiss back? Does every night deserve to be spent on a lover?
If the answer to any of these is “No,” what do we do?
Ever read a book that was miraculously able to pinpoint feelings you’ve had but have never expressed out loud, or described moments you’ve experienced that you thought were unique to you? Well if you haven’t, I suggest you give ‘The Lover’s Dictionary’ by David Levithan a go.
This book is…well, it’s different. For a start it’s a dictionary that passes for a novel. We travel from A right through to Z, going through entries that give us insight into the ups and downs of the nameless (male) narrator’s relationship with his unnamed girlfriend.
What makes the reading process so rewarding is that the story is obviously not told in full and is not written chronologically. A lot is left unsaid allowing your imagination to fill in the gaps. Through these anecdotes/entries you learn so much more about these two people than if it were a full blown novel.
I didn’t want to know who he was, or what you did, or that it didn’t mean anything.
This is a love story that doesn’t hold back. All those little nuances of a relationship (both successful and failing) are detailed, making the story unique yet universal. I don’t want to reveal anymore because a lot of the delight in reading this comes from how the story unfolds; alphabetically.
Interestingly, this book works very well as an ebook. I read it on my kindle and found I had a greater understanding and appreciation of what was being said because I could just touch my screen to find the full definition of more complex words. You could, of course, simply pull out a dictionary from your shelf, but all that hassle when you can just touch.
The first three nights we spent together, I couldn’t sleep. I wasn’t used to your breathing, your feet on my legs, your weight in the bed. In truth, I still sleep better when I’m alone. But now I allow that sleep isn’t always the most important thing.
This book is funny and it’s sad, but most of all, it’s real. Read it.
D’ya have any favourite words/entries from this dictionary?o